The escalation between Israel and Iran in Syria: what to make of it?

The military escalation these last couple of weeks between Iran and Israel has been characterized the most direct confrontation between these two countries in many years, as part of what we can call a proxy conflict, both between Israel and Iran and in the context of the war in Syria. New elements are coming forward everyday and the situation is changing very quickly, not only between Israel in Iran but also in Israel itself with the Gaza protests that have been going on since March 30th and the violent repression that followed up, which is still going on in the light of the inauguration of the American embassy in Jerusalem. It’s not the first time that war has loomed over these two regional powers. Not so long ago, in 2010, the media was asking not if but when and how a war would take place. Eight years later, the context is more volatile with the Syrian civil war and the possible disintegration of the non-proliferation infrastructure. However, can we really expect a fully-fledged war between Iran and Israel? It seems unlikely that a conventional and structural war would be fought. However, in the context of the nuclear deal, the proxy conflict between the two countries could continue to take place in Syria.

Let’s recapitulate. On April 9th, Israel was accused of conducting an airstrike at the T-4 air base between Homs and Palmyre. Israel had identified the air base center as command-and-control site for Iranian drones that entered Israeli airspace in February. The attack killed 7 Iranians and Iran promised retaliation. This was followed by other attacks on army bases in the Hama region on April 29th and 30th, killing 38 Syrian soldiers in Hama and 18 Iranians. Other air strikes were conducted in Kisweh, south of Damascus on May 8th, hours after Trump withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal. The last airstrike killed 42 people and at least 19 Iranians. On May 9th, Iranian forces launched 20 missiles at the occupied Golan Heights, to which Israel answered by conducting massive airstrikes in Syria directed at Iranian targets. Israel acknowledged the April 9 airstrike against T4 and other actions in Syria as part of what the IDF calls “Operation House of Cards“: a preemptive effort to prepare for an eventual Iranian attack. This was followed this week by a missile hit on May 18th, hitting an arms depot in the Hama region near the airport, killing 11. These are the largest attacks carried out by Israel in Syria since the two signed an agreement following the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. It was also an US ally’s largest intervention in Syria in decades.

An Israel Air Force F-15 (photo credit: Ofer Zidon/Flash90)
An Israel Air Force F-15 (photo credit: Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

Israel sees Iran as an existential menace and wants to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions as well as its support of Shiite militia in Syria. Iran is considered to be as a rising force that projects its influence in the region by arming proxies. Tel-Aviv refers to their airstrikes as preventive, targeting Iranian and Hezbollah military infrastructure in Syria, especially in the South West. Qassem Souleimani, commander of the elite Quds division of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has been training Shiite recruits to fight alongside Bashar Al-Assad since 2011 in order to maintain the Assad regime, a longtime ally, thus hoping to assuage Iran’s sense of encirclement. Iranians were there joined by Shiite units shipped in from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Lebanon, more specifically from Hezbollah, which has been acting as a deterrent against Israel as part of Tehran’s “axis of resistance”.

Qassem Souleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force.
Qassem Souleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force.

One of the main game changers is the Trump’s pullout from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the result of a decade of non-proliferation diplomacy, which sparked strong reaction in the world, including in Iran where many protests took place. The deal entailed Iran curbing its nuclear program in return for the lifting of most sanctions. In addition, the deal implied the acceptance of a monitored and limited uranium enrichment program by the IAEA, allowing Iran’s reintegration into the global economy. Some commentators have pointed out Trump’s decision as irrational and dangerous, especially in regard of this recent escalation. The project to get out of the deal was one of Trump’s campaign promises. One explanation that has stood out is the President’s desire to destroy his predecessor’s legacy. In the meantime, The US has called for new sanctions against Iran. It’s important to remember that, so far, the IAEA has made it clear that Iran has respected the conditions of the deal: by January 2016, Iran had reduced its number of centrifuges and shipped tons of low-enriched uranium to Russia. Unless Iran and the other nuclear pact signatories can reach a compromise, it may lead to Tehran resuming its enrichment program, although not at full speed, something both Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and president Rouhani have expressed. It doesn’t seem like the Trump administration has any clear and sustained strategy in the region, apart for an alignment with Tel-Aviv and Riyadh. In that sense, it seems unlikely that the US would bring mediation between Israel and Iran. During a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation on May 21th, Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, has addressed an ultimatum to Iran, demanding Tehran withdraw its forces from Syria and end all support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as stopping its “threatening behavior against neighbors, including threats to destroy Israel and attacks on Saudi Arabia.”, announcing that new sanctions were coming.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Benjamin Netanyahu, also known for his incendiary statements on Iran, took the opportunity to “unveil” some incriminating information about Iran’s nuclear program as a prelude to Trump’s pullout of JCPOA . A little more than a week ago, at Rose Garden news conference, Netanyahu revealed a “major Mossad operation” in Iran aimed at sneaking nuclear files out of the country. This file apparently included charts, photos, blueprints and other documents. According to Netanyahu, this document proves that the nuclear deal was based on lies and that the Iranian government is untrustworthy. The Israeli Prime Minister made his point with a theatrical presentation of slides and pictures reminiscent of his last presentation on Iran’s nuclear program back in 2012, better known as the “red line” or “bomb presentation”. Netanyahu has basically accused Iran of expanding its nuclear program since 2015, a claim denied by Tehran. Rob Malley, a former senior official in Mr. Obama’s National Security Council and a member of the negotiating team with Iran said on twitter that Netanyahu’s claims were baseless. He also made the remark as to Trump being the only one taking Iran’s nuclear menace  seriously. The material of the file was dating to a nuclear project named Amad, which was abandoned back in 2003, years before the JCPOA.

In parallel, we have Russia, Europe and China discussing a new deal, trying to salvage the 2015 deal and providing financial aid to curb Iran missile program. In the coming week, the leaders will meet in Vienna to discuss the deal, under the leadership of senior European Union diplomat Helga Schmid. However, if new U.S sanctions are applied, it may deter Western investors from doing business with Tehran, something that would be hard for European firms to bypass. Tehran also firmly condemned Washington ultimatum, that some has referred to as a tentative to lead to a regime change in Tehran. According to Hossein Mousavian, former spokesman for Tehran during nuclear negociations in 2005, the diplomacy that Trump is putting into motion “repeats the same coercive policy the US administration has implemented for four decades on Iran.”

Therefore, it is possible that the pressure on Iran might create a pathway to confrontation, like Trita Parsi, Founder of the National Iranian American Council, explained. Tehran has worked since the Iraq invasion in 2003 to combat its sense of encirclement. If backed against the wall, it’s hard to know how Tehran will react. Israel might use this opportunity to continue its airstrike campaign against Iranian infrastructure in Syria. For now, any possibility of détente between Israel and Iran comes down to how the nuclear negotiations will unfold and how Russia will bolster the de-escalation between the two countries.